What if we could intentionally transform not just the landscape or the structures upon it but also the form of the planet’s coverage itself, engineering the atmosphere for our purposes? While this may sound like an outlandish concept at first, the fact that human production already has a substantial damaging effect on the ozone layer makes it conceivable that we could also engineer a protective solution to help mitigate environmental concerns. This is known as geoengineering, and it’s a technique that has recently undergone much research and debate.
Currently the main form of geoengineering is carbon dioxide removal. This involves offsetting greenhouse gas production by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing or using it for a different purpose. Planting trees is an example of this, as we add carbon-consuming organisms to the Earth that absorb greenhouse gases and convert them to oxygen. Biomass-derived bio-energy is another, less known form in which biomass grows by absorbing carbon dioxide and is then used as an energy source. Several other types of this carbon geoengineering exist, but most either provide meager results or require complex and expensive processes to enact. Ongoing research attempts to refine these methods and make them more practical, but another potential hope lies in another type of geoengineering: capturing and controlling sunlight itself.
Solar geoengineering is the process of reflecting or dispersing sunlight so that it does not warm the planet to such a great degree. While solar geoengineering is at present largely a theory, it is a developed and detailed one, and there is a sizable body of research on its potential methods. The first way is to release aerosols into the atmosphere to serve as a protective layer above the ozone which reflects some sunlight back into space, preventing its planetary impacts. The other methods consist of cloud manipulation, such as the thinning of cirrus clouds to allow them to radiate more heat into space or the brightening of marine clouds to make them more reflective. Ironically, most of the proposed methods for solar geoengineering to solve problems caused by chemical emissions into the atmosphere involve distributing other chemicals to the atmosphere. It’s definitely strange, but it’s a major aim of modern climate science.
Solar geoengineering might seem like a precarious pursuit, and scientists are dedicated to imagining its possible unintended consequences so that we can avoid them. After all, the sun is the foremost energy source for the planet and everything on it, and blockage of that energy could lead to cascading consequences affecting ecologies in local settings even as it equilibrates global temperatures. Furthermore, it fails to address the problem of climate change at its source: the initial carbon emissions contaminating our atmosphere and causing immediate issues like ocean acidification. For these reasons, Harvard and other scientists believe that solar geoengineering “could not be a substitute” for reducing pollution by cutting emissions. It might be the key factor in overcoming a crisis, but some of the environmental efforts will almost certainly have to come from changes in our own lifestyles and activities. That’s why it’s essential that we all work towards sustainable environmental solutions in our own communities right now. The very fact that the National Academies enjoin the nation to study these technologies as one of the last hopes for an impending threat is proof of that.
What do you think about these technologies? They certainly provoke an emotional response from me, so I anticipate that hearing about these ideas for the first time is surprising. As always, please feel free to comment below; we’d love to hear from you.